Clams are money. Not just to the Flintstones, or the Miwok tribe of California who strung the shells into money-belts, but right here in Connecticut, birthplace of the clam pizza. That's one reason why keeping the continental shelf pristine is so important — to keep all those clams happy, healthy and tasty.
And when the grandpappy, or shall we say "grand-Pepe" of the clam pie opens its doors very soon on New Britain Avenue in West Hartford's Elmwood section, they'll be a lot of clams changing hands. That's right, West Hartford will finally have the one thing it still lacks, a Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana restaurant!
Were it not for those humble mollusks, who knows whether the New Haven pizzeria founded in 1925 would be thriving today? Yes, Pepe's makes a truly great pizza, but any business has to have a serious edge to stay afloat as long as this place has. Pepe's survived on Wooster Street in New Haven for over 80 years until the family made the decision to expand and open its first satellite restaurant in Fairfield in March, 2006. After that came the deluge, with locations opening in Danbury, Manchester, Mohegan Sun Casino and Yonkers, New York.
For a long time, the restaurant's claim to fame was the legend that Frank Pepe had invented pizza. But it doesn't take a mythbuster to figure out that taking credit for the pizza pie is likely a tall tale. Sure, the website of the Yale Herald continues to maintain the claim, and it was also parroted in The College Book by Lisa Birnbach, author of The Official Preppy Handbook. Keep in mind that folks in New Haven also try to take credit for lollipops, ice cubes, frisbees, hamburgers and pretty much every other modern amenity. When an Elm Citizen lays claim to a first, it's about as credible as Star Trek's Mr. Chekov chanting, "It was invented in Moscow."
However, we should let the Pepe family have its clam pie (and eat it, too, damnit). Their claim just makes sense, to hear Frank Pepe's grandson, Francis Rosselli, explain it. For one thing, there's his modesty about the whole "invention of pizza" question. "I can't say that he was the first," said Rosselli of his grandfather. "One of the first" is as close as Rosselli will get on the record.
Second, Pepe's employees shuck their clams onsite, laboriously, one clam at a time at every location. The Advocate tried and failed to find another pizza place that does that. "That's a very intensive process, as you might imagine," said Rosselli.
Other places may offer a clam topping option on their pizza, but those are very often canned clams, which could be from anywhere, as opposed to the local New England Clam beds that are Pepe's sole source. Naples Pizza in Farmington and its sister restaurant, Mondo, in Middletown use clams shucked off-site from City Fish Market, according to owner Matt Gordon.
Harry's Pizza, a celebrated West Hartford establishment, also thinks outside the can and offers a clams casino pie as well as the white clam pie that is the New England standard. Perhaps the most interesting proprietary spin on the clam pie is a Fra Diavolo at Joey's on Park Road in West Hartford, which has a spicy tomato sauce along with shrimp and lobster toppings.
But it all began at Pepe's in New Haven, a city where in the 1940s, pushcart vendors would hawk clams on the half shell from the street corner. These were also served as an appetizer at Pepe's back then, raw, and freshly shucked by the guys in the back. Company executive Ken Berry recreated the magic moment: "As the legend goes people would ask him, 'Eh, Frank, can we get some on a pizza?'"
"We had the ingredient right there," recalled Rosselli. "So my grandfather just started adding clams in their natural juices, very freshly shucked. It was a home run; it really took off."
"At the same time, the business started to receive a lot of write-ups, first in local newspapers, then in national publications. The clam pie was what drew the attention. The food writers most responsible for that were Jane and Michael Stern, nationally known food critics and writers in the 1970s. They were students at the time, and they wrote a book called Roadfood, and that helped put Pepe's on the national stage."
It takes more than hype to make a clam pie taste like one of Pepe's, though. Not just any clam can make the cut. "As we've expanded, the supplies became more limited because we were really shucking a lot of clams," said Rosselli. "So we had to go to various vendors and clam beds to acquire the product. What we found was that certain beds did not work, and that was based on salinity."
The family's insistence on keeping to tradition extends beyond clam shucking, and over the years staying old-school has taken real stubbornness. For instance, instead of switching to gas or electricity to run its ovens, or even adopting the chi-chi "wood-fired" cachet, Frank Pepe's stuck with coal, the closest thing available to the fast burning coke that fired the ovens in 1925. There was a period when no self-respecting pizzeria would be caught dead without a virtuoso dough-flipper performing in the window. Not Pepe's; that would have meant messing with perfection.
"The properties of the dough are that it is very delicate, with a high moisture content," said Roselli. "It's not the kind of dough that lends itself to either tossing or machine-rolling. We choose, as we have traditionally done for all these years... we call it 'banging out' or 'patting out' the dough shell, which takes a certain amount of skill to maintain its shape in that way."
All this might have something to do with why, during a visit one evening this past summer, the line to get in to Pepe's stretched out the door and down the block — another hallowed tradition. You'd think that with people no longer having to trek across the state for the taste of a Pepe's pizza, the crowds should have thinned out a bit. But perhaps it's part of the demands of the cult of authenticity, that much as an authentic New England clam pizza must have fresh clams, an authentic New Haven pizza must be consumed in New Haven.
"We will always refer to New Haven as our home base," said Rosselli. "New Haven is our mother ship."
The line outside Pepe's in New Haven. (Randy Laist photo)